Attending a conference if you’re a startup is the last thing you should do.
Except if you find a way to hack it.
Conferences are a waste of time. When you’re an early stage founder all the resources that you spend get you closer to bankruptcy.
Each time you decide to spend your time and resources not on the highest priority, you’re making a mistake.
Two weeks ago a friend invited us to Web Summit. Since it was a 2 hours flight away, and free, we decided to give the conference a shot.
Was it worth it?
Yes because we hacked it. But I wouldn't go for the full 4 days again.
If you're at an early stage, or wonder if you should attend Web Summit next year, here is the guide to hack it.
- Get as many talks as you can - If you can give a short pitch on the main stage you’ll get an amazing video presentation you can re-use across all social media.
- Get an access to the Forum - giving a talk is the easiest way to do it
- Only go to satellite night events with less than 100 people
- Stay 4 days, 2 days are enough
- Get a booth for more than 1 day
- Setup 1-1 meetings with potential customers if your product is self-serve
Ok now let's go into the details that I wish I knew before.
Lisbon is a small city that gets very busy during Web Summit. Here are some tricks to save you time, energy, and money:
- Free rent. Lisbon is becoming one of Europe's tech hubs. Which means you can find a friend (of a friend) to host you. Do that instead of paying an expensive hotel. Plus you can build a relationship with your host. Leave a bottle of champagne behind you.
- Take cabs using the Bolt app - half the price and waiting time vs Uber. The subways are packed and you can wait 2 to 3 trains before getting into one. Don’t waste your energy here.
B. One-to-One connections
The best way to meet the right people is to plan it:
- Before the event download the Web Summit app and search for people you want to meet. I sent personalized messages and got a 50% positive response rate. The app is full of IT outsourcing sales people trying to sell you cheap engineers. A well-crafted message will get you the meeting you want.
- Send emails and Linkedin DM to follow up with people that haven't replied in the app. It can increase the response rate by 20%.
- Too many people come to Web Summit to sell. This creates a climate of suspicion between people. People aren't sure if you meet them to sell them something. This creates weird moments where conversations are shallow and people won't share information. Break away from that and give away as much as you can. The best conversations I’ve had were delivering value on whatever people wanted to hear. You want to hear stuff such as "really appreciate your candor sharing this stuff".
- Trying to sell a self-serve product makes little sense. Instead leverage these conversations for your current priority. For us it was testing our new positioning.
- Most people attending WS are on an employer sponsored holiday. They’re here to enjoy the Summit. Basically to party and get hammered using company credit cards.
- Be memorable. To stand out, we brought some boxes of Growth pills. For instance I bumped into Rahul from Superhuman and handed him over a box. He was lovely and smiled. Now he knows June.so exists.
I’ll be honest. Setting up these 1-1 meetings takes A LOT of time and after a full day of meetings you’ll be emotionally drained. And you never know if it pays off. Next year I’ll try to reduce this to 1 day instead of 2.
C. Business exposure
The main value you can get from WS is giving visibility to your startup. The conference is so crowded that this can get tricky. Here are a few hacks:
- Hustle your way into speaking on the main stage. There’s a "Breakout startups" format for seed stage startups to present their startup on the main stage. You can get in if you raised a seed round and connected with one of the organizers (Paddy, Chris, and the rest of the WebSummit organising crew) you have a shot at this. The point of speaking on this stage is to get the great looking video and communicate on it. Try to be very specific in your talk as you'll re-use it with your target audience.
- Get a startup booth for 1 day. Startups can get a small booth. You can get it for free if you're a speaker. When you're at a booth interesting people will come to you. Plus the organize group you with other relevant startups. People start conversations spontaneously so it’s more natural networking than through the app. For the day you have the booth, don’t book meetings.
Fun fact: our neighbor took a booth for 2 days. And each day he tested a new positioning and name for his company.
- Print something valuable and put it on tables around. We printed our upcoming product metrics benchmark and dropped them everywhere. I sneaked into the startup, investor, and women in tech lounges and dropped them everywhere.
D. The forum
This is the best kept secret of WebSummit. The forum is the area behind the main stage where the real deal happens.
- Everyone that speaks on stage will drop by the lounge. The forum is the area where premium guests can chill, and this is where media are. The forum is your cheat code to meet anyone you want. I made most of our meetings there, and got warm intros there too.
- If you're selling, have a hunting list and watch for your prey. List who you want to meet, have a picture of that person, and prepare a specific pick up line for each person. You need to catch people's interest. I met a startup founder who went up to people saying he was looking for angel investors. Then he turned the conversation into a chat that sometimes turned into a discovery call. This worked great for him!
- Interview people. The forum is the perfect place to produce content with tech celebrities. Typically a short 2-5 minutes video interview for your social accounts (we should have done this one!)
- Plus the free food is great. First day we wasted 30min and 30€ for a pizza. Then I realized the cook in the Forum had a 2 Michelin star restaurant.
- Lastly, a warning. In the Forum you might also meet some executive headhunters or management consultants that come to drink. They’re easy to spot though as by 11AM they’ll be holding a glass of red wine. As a rule of thumb don’t go talk to people with a suit. And would definitely avoid the booze.
E. Side events
This is the second best kept secret.
- Web Summit has events in the night called « night summit ». They’re great but for everyone and so the odds you meet the right people there are little. Don’t go there.
- Instead attend events organized by VCs with < 100 people. The best way to find these events is to be in investors' agendas, or asking to the people you meet at the booths during the day. This is the kind of event where you could end up meeting the co-founders of Airbnb, Binance and Intercom in the same place.
- One fear from event organizers is that their events feel too corporate or filled with VCs. If you’re a startup founder, pretty much every event wants people like you. Successful founders want to meet the next generation of founders more than VCs.
- Don’t attend several events in one night. Stay at one and build up connections. If you build a meaningful connection with someone they'll introduce you to another person.
So is Web Summit worth it?
Attending a conference is a long term investment. So don’t expect your business to skyrocket overnight.
For us I'd say it was worth it since we spent less than 100$ a day in two.
Next year I would definitely not spend three full days in the conference, two is enough:
- One if we manage to give a talk, and meet relevant people at the forum and satellite events
- One day with a booth
Lastly, a big thank you to those who invited us. While I don’t think it’s a no brainer to spend 3 days there as an early stage startup, event is overall impressive and delivers on its promise. So we’ll be back! 😃
That’s it, I have a bunch of other hacks that I’ll be happy to share if we end up meeting in person, just ask.
Feel free to send me your conference fun stories, questions or hacks at enzo [at] june.so